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The Last of Us: The conflict of storytelling in games
by Stuart Scott on 08/05/13 05:05:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In a word, The Last of Us is astounding. This is not something that should come as a surprise to many when glancing at the perfect scores that were showered upon Naughty Dog’s latest title by a lot of satisfied reviewers. It is not premature to consider it a triumphant swansong of the current generation as we all prepare to usher in the Next-Gen of home consoles.

However, I don’t want to describe why I thoroughly enjoyed The Last of Us. Aside from it potentially taking too long to explain every fantastic minute detail, I want to focus on a fundamental issue I experienced throughout my time with the story of Joel and Ellie.

The keen-eyed amongst you will notice that, until now, I have made no reference to The Last of Us as a game. Therein lies the issue, and it is one that I just couldn’t overlook no matter how hard I tried during playing. The Last of Us is an intensely gripping story that happens to be presented in a brilliant game that puts the player in the leading role. Unfortunately, one of these aspects can end up being overshadowed or disrupted by the other despite the best intentions of the player or the writer.

Breaking the illusion

Right from the outset I was hooked by the character personalities, the way they moved, the dialog and little nuances of emotion visible on their face whilst playing the game. I was performing the part of a real character in a believable and horrific world and I was completely immersed.

I am Joel, walking with my partner Tess through the dystopia of a world ravaged by an unknown infection. As Tess and I converse on our journey through side-alleys and derelicts I suddenly notice something out of the corner of my eye.  As Tess moves the conversation to highly pertinent matters I have wandered away from her and out of ear shot to see what this shiny item laying in a dark corner is. In that moment I am transported from this bleak world back to my living room and I am suddenly incredibly aware that I am actually playing a game.

This immersion breaking incident is not an isolated occurrence as it is largely unavoidable when giving the player free control over the lead character’s actions. In each instance I was presented with a choice to explore every nook and cranny of an area or continue to follow the lead of my NPC guide, I was conflicted about which decision to make. On the one hand I wanted to stay true to the situation and the people involved in this scene, but on the other I have conditioned myself to search everywhere in a game environment for fear of missing that one key resource or collectable.

During these moments of mental conflict, I am no longer focusing on the atmosphere, the nuances of emotion on my partner’s face or the developing story between character conversations. I am focused on playing a game and I am reluctant to miss the potential opportunity to discover some revolver ammunition that I sorely need.

These instances are compounded in a linear game like The Last of Us, where the world is built and themed around the struggle for survival and the constant scavenging for resources. If I choose to ignore that dark room down a corridor in order to continue running with my partner away from an impending threat, I have maintained the reality of the situation but disregarded the scavenging themes of survival that resonate through this presented world.

It is a testament to the believability of the story, its characters and the design of the world that I am often presented with these dilemmas in a game, but it leads to the question of how much further the medium must go to reduce such moments of disconnect. When compared to other storytelling media forms such as TV, film and literature, games can offer an additional level of involvement for its audience, but the benefits can also be its undoing and must be leveraged appropriately.  

Maintaining the illusion

It is not just Naughty Dog’s offering that can lose audience engagement in these ways, with most games determined to tell a story often hampered by a necessity to allow the player control over the situation. Indeed, temporarily removing the player control to act out a key scene via a pre-rendered cinematic is itself a form of breaking immersion as the player is more aware of their lack of control in the circumstances.

While The Last of Us is guilty of this on occasion, they achieve a lot of increased immersion through the design of the game in order to compliment the engagement in the story. The in-game display is fittingly minimal to suit the themes of scarcity, as well as be unobtrusive to the point of being unnoticed until required by the player. Players are left to determine their own path to follow in most situations, with clever Level Design subtly leading the player rather than an artificial objective marker floating above an exit. When attempting to sneak around the player avatar will instinctively move into cover rather than requiring the player to press a button to snap in or out, thus creating an intuitive and natural interaction.

For all its masterful techniques of maintaining immersion in its world, the issue in linear story based games such as this remains that the player will ultimately have the capability to disrupt their engagement in the scene. It may or may not be intentional, but it is this player choice that is integral to feeling they are part of the world at that moment. Without it, the player may as well be watching a non-interactive medium such as TV or film where the story plays out before them.

Of course, the issue is negated somewhat in more open gameplay that can rely on emergent story developments and interactions influenced by the player’s actions. The problem then becomes guaranteeing an interesting narrative for the player to be part of so that they feel compelled to continue further. However, in many ways the strain this can create on writers and developers could have a greater negative effect on the overall quality of a game that sets its scope too wide. 

Future stories

As the gaming industry looks to evolve it is encouraging to consider that the issues of storytelling are becoming more complex and challenging within the medium. More products are aiming to convey a message or have an engrossing narrative to compliment the interaction of playing a game. In some ways it appears that these products are progressing beyond the oft perceived immaturity of games and should possibly be considered as interactive entertainment instead.

Although a gulf between the storytelling and interaction aspect of such entertainment still exists, it should hopefully encourage more developers to follow in Naughty Dog’s footsteps to deliver an even greater synergy of content. With more mature approaches and themes to interactive storytelling becoming increasingly prominent it will hopefully lead to more widespread success, respect and enjoyment within the medium for developers and consumers alike.

This blog was originally posted on my personal website

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Allan Munyika
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The fact that you are holding a joystick, controlling the actions of an onscreen character in response to the actions of other onscreen characters, for the purpose of entertainment means that the Last of Us is a video game. That means regardless of what drives the game, narrative, graphics, sound etc, the game aspect (gameplay) should be the focus. I'm not saying that narrative wasn't an important part of the Last of Us, it was but what appealed to me and I'm sure to many other players about the Last of Us was the gameplay, that was the most immersive thing about this game, the fact that it's gameplay elements were created with CONTEXT to its narrative to the point where the game could hold immersion purely on gameplay alone. Gameplay should be the main driving force behind immersion and all other factors should come second.

PS. Other good examples of this include the trailers for Ubisofts upcoming title, The Division, and Bungies upcomig game Destiny.

Scott Lavigne
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I flatly disagree with your premise. Those things means it's interactive media, not that it's a game. The Last of Us never tries to be a great game. It's a great plot that you walk through and it occasionally makes you fight for your life (as one of the characters) so you can empathize with their situation more and become more understanding of the world they live in. You are never truly Joel or Ellie during those moments of gameplay - just someone in the world like them. You don't make choices that impact their lives; you're only allowed to experience what the developers have already decided they'll do from an over-the-shoulder perspective.

Allan Munyika
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Yes video games are a type of interactive medium but not all interactive media can be classified as video games. An interactive experience that's driven purely by narrative would be classed under interactive movies and we all know what happened to those.

Immersion in games is driven first and farmost by gameplay and narrative is there purely to add emotional investment.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I really don't understand the issue...
I honestly missed the point in which games were so distinctly supposed to be about choosing your own destiny.
To me, games are simply about achieving a given goal within the universe of the game using the rules of such universe.
The story a game decides to tell is up to the particular intent of the game, and the systemic tools it uses are subscribed to the experiential role it wishes the player to fulfill.

So I don't understand what is the significance of your comment Scott, your choice impacts more or less of their lives? Really? A successful game requires that the creator simulates life altering options for the characters? Why?
If it gives you interesting options to allow you to complete the experience why is any of that necessary?

WHY are people still trying to enforce a certain gameplay structure and drawing the line of what isn't sufficiently gameplaylike or narrativelike or interactive. Mechanically, it's clearly a Videogame, and as you well recognize, this is a subset of interactive media ( which encompasses pretty much all media in the history of mankind ) it is a medium to communicate. Why is it a problem if they want to use it to tell a story that is less about you? Why is it incorrect to strip the experiences to a bare minimum If they succeed in communicating the desired idea?
And if it does so with excellence, why is it not an excellent Videogame?

In the end, It is a silly discussion, games or whatever you want to call them, should never be demanded to be inscribed in what players demand them to be, that concept makes for a stagnant medium.

Tomi Vesanen
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How is scavenging potentially lifesaving resources not staying true to the situation? Granted, scavenging and looting tends to be heavily prioritized by players over something like staying in character in games that allow such actions, but heck, stories are full of scenes where a character just HAS to grab something before fleeing a life-threatening situation, either leading to their demise or a just-in-the-nick-of-time escape.

Rich Chatwin
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I loved The Last of Us for the story and gameplay, but one thing it was devoid of was player choice. On a low level you had choice, like which weapon to use and how to approach situations, but at a higher level, the player had to do what 'Joel' wanted to do, even if we disagreed.

This is not a bad thing, but at the same time we shouldn't think this sort of game is the only way forward. We need games that utilise the strength of video games, that they offer players choice. They can decide the ending. We can decide when to be good or bad.

The storytelling in Last of Us is great, but having a real choice in a game is great too*.

*Except when all the choices are pretty sucky, a la Mass Effect 3. A better example is the last mission in Mass Effect 2, which was phenomenal.

Scott Lavigne
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Nothing you say is incorrect, but I'm not sure why you bring it up. Like you say, not offering narrative choice isn't a bad thing, and to realistically integrate meaningful narrative choice into The Last of Us would essentially be to make it a completely different game (limited resources means cutting away from what's already there, and the choice being meaningful means new narrative direction(s) as opposed to the very polished plot that they decided to go with).

It would be completely new game systems, and it'd have to be something that makes narrative choice worth having (that is, it would have to either be aimed at making the player reflect on their own views or roleplay within a world). The Last of Us never wanted to be a roleplaying game, and it MIGHT do a little of the first one already (in a better way than forcing in meaningless narrative choices, in my opinion). I don't see any reason to even mention any of the endless alternatives they could have approached the project with.

Rich Chatwin
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I bring it up because the above article makes a case for more games following the tack of the Last of Us, and as I say there are merits in both approaches (strict narrative vs open choice) which should be recognised.

Also, there is an argument to be made that actually forcing players down one specific route makes the game less immersive, because people will be playing it thinking 'I wouldn't be doing that'.

The higher point here is that games are NOT films, and shouldn't try to be, because they will lose. We need to embrace the ways games can enhance story telling (such as the on screen GUI and level layout as the original author highlighted) and avoid just trying to mimic an 'on rails' narrative which The Last of Us did have.

And whilst I appreciate Naughty Dog had a specific vision for the game, it would not have been much more difficult to put a key choice/choices in with different cut scenes.

Scott Lavigne
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"The higher point here is that games are NOT films, and shouldn't try to be, because they will lose. We need to embrace the ways games can enhance story telling (such as the on screen GUI and level layout as the original author highlighted) and avoid just trying to mimic an 'on rails' narrative which The Last of Us did have."

The inherent problem with this line of thinking is that not all "games" are actually meant to be "games" (systems of competition against other players or the mechanics of the game). Games are a type of interactive media, and interactive film/visual novels/other interactive media are just as valid of routes to pursue (and have their own markets) as true "games". These are not confined spaces either, but more of a spectrum of varying levels of interactivity/choice (and not even a two-dimensional one as there are many facets of choice). Just because The Last of Us is less interactive than some games doesn't mean that it's a bad thing. As others have said, I'd say it makes it stronger.

They achieve exactly what they set out to do, and, as I've said elsewhere, to make the changes you talk about would be to make a completely different game than The Last of Us. Pigeon-holing in a points in the plot where there's a "choice" doesn't inherently add anything to the game, and it just means you have to create much more content for the game to not break that illusion of choice (your ability to express yourself will always be greatly finite), and that content isn't just a matter of time as you also have to rework everything else so that the characters and plot can be meaningful (you inherently have to thin characters as well in order to give the player more choice so that there isn't a struggle for agency). The bottom line is that you want a zombie survival RPG. The Last of Us is not that game. It is not within shouting distance of being that game.

Eric Geer
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I could see there being a few moments in TLOU that would have been worthwhile to explore, but the direct story telling had, in my opinion, a more powerful roll to play.

I would have loved to try to keep Henry and Sam alive, or at least one of them, or fight with Tess for a bit longer until she turned, or maybe even attempt to smooth things over with Bill and have him come along, or drag Tommy along for the final part of the adventure--but still think even if choices were available, none would have been nearly as meaningful or told as well as the one that was forced.

Same reason "choose your own adventure" books never really told an incredible story, and they don't exist as great stories through time. There was purpose in TLOU..I think that's what I liked most about it. Humans over time have been drawn to good stories, we can create our own, and we can enjoy others, TLOU is one that I believe is better as you can't change the situation you are in or where you are going.

Roberta Davies
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I haven't played The Last of Us yet, so I can't comment on it specifically. But as a long-term adventure gamer, I'm not so dedicated to the mantra of "player choice". How much freedom is necessary for a game? A game doesn't have to be a sandbox to be good.

Think about the classic adventure games, from Scott Adams' text adventures through Infocom and on to LucasArts, Sierra, and Magnetic Scrolls. The only free choice available (if there's any at all) is which order you want to tackle various challenges. You can, of course, attempt to do anything you can think of -- but most of the time the result will be "nothing happens" or "you can't do that".

In adventure games that have clearly delineated characters, you're constrained to making decisions in the persona of the character. In The Secret of Monkey Island, you must try to become a pirate; you can't decide you'd rather join the circus or be a beachcomber. You must fall in love with Governor Elaine, not the Voodoo Lady or one of the pirates or nobody at all.

In a well-written adventure, there are some "wrong" actions that lead to interesting or amusing sidelines, or at least witty one-liners. But the only meaningful action, in adventure terms, is the one that makes the story progress along its preordained path. The only meaningful choice is choosing to do this action.

A classic adventure game is probably the most linear and constrained of all games. Some analysts argue that it's not a game at all, just a series of puzzles hung on a storyline. And yet adventure gamers (like me) will tell you that there's more to an adventure than just a string of puzzles, and that the experience of one is indeed a true game.

How much does this have to do with The Last of Us? I don't know. But there's room in the gaming universe for all levels of freedom and constraint.

John Szczepaniak
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The thing that killed The Last of Us for me was that for several hours the game was all about resource conservation: Don't waste bullets. Then suddenly the game puts you in an upside down shoot-out with infinite ammo. No explanation, just a contrived deus ex machina so that Naughty Dog could stick a firefight in there. After several hours of saving ammo, they decided to basically use SPACE MAGIC to negate the rules previously set in place. That was game shattering for me. Not the fact that there was infinite ammo - many games have it - but rather the lack of internal consistency in the game.

Apart from that, State of Decay is more my cup of zombie tea anyway.

Ozzie Smith
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Generally I thought that the game had phenomenal pacing and level design. But this moment and the moment when you get a mounted sniper rifle (also with infinite ammo) were the 2 worst parts of the game for me. They didn't ruin the experience for me at all but they definitely stand out in memory for not being up to par. For me they are bad not so much for breaking game logic but just for restricting player freedom so much. In both sections 90% of the mechanics in the game are unusable.

Michael DeFazio
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I really thought you were going to talk about the fact that in game your party members are invisible to the enemies...And stealth is a big part of the game.

I had some laugh out loud moments where the guards walked right in front of party members and didnt sqwak...

The Last of Us : Fistful of Yen edition:

Not to bag too hard on the game, but that crushed immersion for me, its kinda like trying to not laugh when someone rips a loud fart in church... yeah I know Im supposed to be respectful, but that's what makes it so funny.

Eric Geer
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The real question here for me, is would you really have wanted to wrestle with having your crew being stealthy too? 9/10 would have raged quit this game if it played out like that.

I've played my fair share of games with AI compatriots and I think Naughty Dog did just right here.

Still wish there could have been a co-op mode that would have made Ellie more useful.

Michael DeFazio
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@Eric/Tony - Just pointing out this as an immersion killer, (when you are playing a escort stealth game with AI party members)...
1) could have fixed the party member AI to not walk in front of enemies
2) could have made it that your party members hide or take alternate routes (do something else rather than brazenly walk directly across the enemy line of site.)
3) could have made interesting design choices which allowed you to distract or trap enemies (personally or through diversion) and/or you could signal an all your party members could get through.

They tried to make things tense and dramatic (through the use of narrative) but the game AI couldn't hold up it's end of the bargain IMHO. (I don't think it has to be a "This or That" argument)

Eric Geer
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To be fair. Ellie's AI was pretty incredible compared to many games that feature AI party members. There were a few cases when this happened, but it wasn't enough to be a immersion breaker for me.

Ernest Adams
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Sigh... we've only been discussing this since about 1986. Playing with a story will never feel like watching a movie. Stop pretending that it should and complaining when it doesn't.

Martin Pettersson
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We as players keep breaking the illusion, because we've been conditioned to believe there are no consequences to behavior that doesn't fit the situation. In most games, if I take an extra hour to look through every crook and cranny of a house, there is no consequence. We know that the next encounter and/or cut scene will be triggered when we're on our way to wherever we're going.

We've got to make sure the player knows that if you don't take the situation seriously, bad stuff will happen. We can also inject opportunities to explore and do whatever when it makes sense.

Eric Geer
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"We've got to make sure the player knows that if you don't take the situation seriously, bad stuff will happen. "

I like this idea, but I think Naughty Dog did a pretty good job at making sure that, like in real life, not everything is a rush or dangerous, sometimes things are ordinary and boring. If you clear out a house, likelihood is that there probably isn't anything else around. While this is true, there could have been some stray zombies, or human patrols that came through that would keep you on your toes.

I think Bill's Town did it the best for me, while there were slow moments, there were also very fast and tense moments, where you could scavenge...but not for long.

Ian Young
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Wow, just... wow. It's just a well designed, story driven game. I see lots of talk about immersion, consequences, and interactive media et al, but when it boils down to what's important, it is simply a game: a computer program designed to entertain players for the duration of play. The players are given goals to achieve, and the bits in between are filled with an interesting story. Nothing more. As a personal opinion, I hate it when game designers try to create interactive movies. This is not what gamers pay for; they pay to be entertained, and to feel good that they were able to solve the puzzles and problems presented to them. This is a core aspect of game design in general, not just computer games. The fact that there is a good story is purely a bonus. Players have been clamouring for non linear game play for decades, but it is understandably difficult to deliver. If you want immersion, go watch a movie. Keep games fun, and keep them open.